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COVID-19, Student Assessments and Remote Learning

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt schools, doing so by making it far more difficult for teachers and other educators to effectively assess students’ academic progress in traditional ways.

Closeup of a person fillng out answer bubbles on a test paper.
The coronavirus pandemic and schools’ move to remote learning has created a range of issues for teachers, not the least of which is how to effectively assess students’ academic progress and knowledge.

This is true not only for teacher-created assessments but also for standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT and AP exams. This first article in a two-part piece on assessments and COVID-19 will take a look at the pandemic’s impact on standardized exams as well as the rise of online test proctoring.

Standardized Assessments

Many high school students who registered to take the SAT or ACT exams are having their test days canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions in their areas. With students worried they’ll be unable to take their tests in time for college application deadlines, two-thirds of U.S. colleges are waiving their SAT and ACT requirements for fall 2021 applicants.

In response, ACT Inc. says they still intend to offer an online at-home proctored exam option for students, possibly even this winter. While for now the College Board’s work towards offering remote SAT exams has been scrapped.

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the College Board offered an online at-home option for their Advance Placement (AP) exams. They revised and shortened these tests for remote administration, but the Board’s rapid mobilization was met with widespread frustration once students dove in to take and upload their course exams – simultaneously and worldwide. The resulting disruptions were unfortunate and predictable. And though the College Board has stated few students taking the 2019-20 AP tests were impacted, these issues likely solidified their decision to rethink plans for offering the SAT remotely.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam – The Nation’s Report Card – administered to a sampling of students in grades 4, 8 and 12 has been canceled for the 2020-21 school year due to COVID-19 concerns. And many states are also considering canceling their state tests this school year, although whether they’re allowed to do so will be up to the incoming Biden administration.

The NAEP exam is computer-based, as are many states’ standardized accountability exams, though no online at-home versions are currently offered. But as the pandemic continues to disrupt the administration of these assessments, one can expect further considerations of online proctored solutions.

Online Test Proctoring

When the ACT is offered remotely, it plans to use human proctors linked through students’ webcams to monitor the test-takers, mimicking on-site testing environments. The ACT’s details for their remote test protocols haven’t been released, but given what’s at stake, great effort will no doubt be made to verify students’ identities and prevent cheating. Though it remains to be seen whether this includes using artificial intelligence (AI) proctoring applications like those incorporated into other online assessment programs.

Both human and remote proctoring programs were being used in higher education courses well before the pandemic hit, but their roles grew dramatically when colleges moved most courses online last spring. Proctorio, an online test proctoring company, reported that from April 2019 to April 2020 they went from proctoring 235,000 assessments to 2.5 million.

Fully digital remote proctoring programs that don’t employ humans use AI and webcams to monitor students to confirm their identities and prevent cheating during exams. But a recent Slate article describes some of the issues college students and their professors have encountered with these programs, including how being closely “watched” during an assessment can contribute to less cheating but may also lead to increased test anxiety in some students, resulting in lower test scores. And a Vox article delves into students’ privacy concerns with proctoring programs that record them, gathers their personal information, and monitors their eye movements and keystrokes.

So with all the effort and money spent on preventing students from cheating on exams, the question must be asked if educators at all levels should reconsider their assessment strategies entirely. Moving from traditional, easily scored multiple-choice tests to those that require students demonstrate their content mastery in more nuanced ways is not an easy transition. And it will require a major shift in education, especially for instructors with large classes, like a 100+ student college lecture course.

Similarly, groups that have lobbied against higher education’s reliance on the SAT and ACT are hopeful that with so many colleges easing these test requirements for 2021, schools will choose to drop them altogether and adopt alternate admissions practices going forward.

Everyone involved in education is suffering during this pandemic – schools, students, teachers and parents alike. But on many levels, it’s presenting educators with unprecedented opportunities to rethink our old ways of doing things, which may lead to significant changes in student assessments.

And that could be a very good thing.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.